Behind the complex textures and earthy colours of Neptune’s Harris Tweed fabrics lies a time-honoured cottage industry that keeps the Hebrides thriving. As journalist Amy Bradford discovers, this is its story, from field to loom.
Could there be a better example of a preservation craft than Harris Tweed? First popularised in the 1840s, its roots in fact go much deeper, back to the Clò-Mòr - 'big cloth' in Gaelic - that has been made by Scottish weavers in their crofts for centuries. Today, it's still handwoven in the same way, solely in the Outer Hebrides, using local materials. Such is the precious nature of this fabric that it's protected by law, and is subject to strict rules that safeguard its authenticity: genuine Harris Tweeds are marked with an orb stamp. All of this takes time and impressive skill.
Harris Tweed is a mainstay of Neptune's fabric collection. 'The colours the mill works with are pulled from the landscape, the character of the cloth is produced by purely traditional methods, and each of the designs are unique,' says Neptune's creative director of product and services. 'Adding to the beauty of this cloth, it has longevity and durability to last a lifetime.'
Even the Cheviot sheep that provide the wool are special: they're known for their dense fleeces, which make Harris Tweed warm, waterproof and breathable. In its virgin state, the wool goes to one of the Hebridean mills to begin its lengthy transformation into fabric, First, it's washed and separated into batches before being dyed. Crucially, dyeing is done before spinning the yarn, which allows many different shades to be blended into one thread; that's what gives Harris Tweed its unique depth of colour. Hints of earth, stone, water and sky flicker across every piece, as if the landscape has been woven through it.
Over 500 or so islanders are involved in tweed craft. Many are employed in the mills, which embrace dozens of specialised skills, from dryers and spinners to cloth finishers and stampers (who give the final seal of quality approval). Mill workers co-exist in a mutual rhythm with weavers who, by law, must work their looms at home. The mill supplies the warp, or vertical threads; the weavers then add the weft that goes across and gives the finished material its rich texture. Weaving expertise takes years to master, with many artisans using the same treadle-powered looms as their ancestors. Each treasured loom has its own quirks, like a musical instrument, and forges a sense of lasting connection to island life.
A renewed appreciation for handmade, sustainable design means that Harris Tweed is in big demand. Thanks to its localised manufacturer, it has a low impact on the environment, yet it has enormous value to the islanders, fostering a complex network of skills that sustains them across the generations.
To see - and, importantly, feel - our Harris Tweed textiles for yourself, visit us in store or order a sample online.